Azeem Azhar – Exponential Views

By Om Malik

I quote Om, I link to his writing. Hopefully, I succeed in convincing others to stay in touch with his thoughts, endeavors, directly. And, now, I find I must read the weekly newsletter from Azeem Azhar.

A couple of quotes from Om’s latest…on Azeem Azhar’s EXPONENTIAL VIEW.

Excerpts from the beginning and end of a short interview conducted via email and Google Docs with Azeem.

Q: From a layman’s perspective, what is Exponential View?

A: Exponential View is a newsletter charting the impact of this major techno-economic-political transition that we are going through. It started life in 2015 as a simple newsletter to help me learn. We were (and still are) witnessing the collision of general-purpose technologies in the fields of computing, energy, biology, and manufacturing. Each of these was improving — on a price/performance basis — very quickly, more than 10% per annum. Silicon chips have improved at around 40-45% per annum for several decades. And startup should destabilize (and then help redefine) our ways of doing things.

EV investigated these trends from a technical, startup, and social perspective. Exponential View is the thesis that emerged from this activity: that technology and societal changes are intertwined and that now more than ever, we need to understand those interrelationships…

Q: What does the near future look like? What are some of the key trends that will shape that future?

A: I wrote my decade predictions in an essay at the end of 2018. Largely, they hold up. Climate change is the most important trend.

Equally, the technologies of the Exponential Age in computing, biology, energy, and manufacturing will continue to get cheaper and cheaper. This will make many areas of activity currently uneconomical, economical. Cheap solar electricity will create a market for hydrogen and synthetic fuels. Great computation will enable better ML methods to allow us to design sophisticated microorganisms in silico before deploying them in the world to fix nitrogen with a lower energy cost than the Haber-Bosch process.

And yet, these technologies will be destabilizing. They will upset the status quo and shift power away from certain actors and towards others. This destabilization process could increase national and civil conflicts, disadvantaging in some fundamental ways many groups or simply creating political unrest as others feel a lack of agency. This last trend may be the one that punishes us for any technical progress, so figuring out how to put humanity’s hand on the tiller that guides the direction of their technologies needs to be a priority.

October 24, 2021. San Francisco.

North American Battery Supply Chain Emerging

Despite having all of the critical ingredients for lithium-ion batteries — nickel, cobalt, lithium, graphite — Canada doesn’t have any EV cell or component manufacturing; and it has only about 10% of the battery demand of the U.S. Combined with a lack of government support for the battery supply chain, it had seemed that Canada was destined to lose the value-add of its raw materials as they are exported to countries that had invested in battery production…

Despite the promising foundations for Canada to be a cornerstone of the North American battery supply chain, until recently it had appeared that there was a lack of support at the government/policy level to attract the industry. This is no longer the case, in just the last two weeks two cell manufacturers have been enticed to set up shop in Canada, with plans to build gigawatt-hour scale cell manufacturing facilities in the country.

Once a country has cell manufacturing capacity, the rest of the component manufacturing industry tends to follow as suppliers move close to their customers. So, Canada is now on course to create a strong domestic battery supply chain…

As EV growth continues in North America, a new supply chain super-hub is growing to challenge the dominance of China, and it is quickly catching up with the growing industry in Europe.

Since the GOUSA is the earliest, potentially-growing EV market, we may wake up some morning and learn the folks smart enough to bankroll electric cars and trucks have decided it’s worthwhile playing in every portion of this 21st Century marketplace.

How Africa was erased from the history of the modern world

The long thread that leads us to the present began in those three decades at the end of the 15th century, when commerce blossomed between Portugal and Africa, sending a newfound prosperity washing over what had previously been a marginal European country. It drove urbanisation in Portugal on an unprecedented scale, and created new identities that gradually freed many people from feudal ties to the land. One of these novel identities was nationhood, whose origins were bound up in questing for wealth in faraway lands, and soon thereafter in emigration and colonisation in the tropics…

The fateful engagement between Europe and sub-Saharan Africa produced civilisational transformations in both regions, as well as in the wider world – ones that, looking back today, produced an exceptionally crisp division between “before” and “after”.

Back then, Europeans were mindful of this reality. As late as the 1530s, well after the start of Portugal’s more famous spice trade with Asia, Lisbon still recognised Africa as the leading driver of all that was new. João de Barros, a counsellor to that country’s crown, wrote: “I do not know in this Kingdom a yoke of land, toll, tithe, excise or any other Royal tax more reliable … than the profits of commerce in Guinea.”

But as remarkable as Barros’s acknowledgment of African vitality was, his omission of slavery as a pillar of the relationship was equally notable. It may have been the first time that the centrality of Black bondage was simply passed over in an informed account of modernity in the west. It would not be the last. When Barros wrote, Portugal overwhelmingly dominated Europe’s trade in Africans, and slavery was beginning to rival gold as Portugal’s most lucrative source of African bounty. By then, it was already on its way to becoming the foundation of a new economic system based on plantation agriculture. Over time, that system would generate far more wealth for Europe than African gold or Asian silks and spices.

And so it grew. Dehumanization redefined the trade in human beings. And as other economic systems proceeded to greater efficiencies, the older means of profit required even more rationales for staying power. Erasing the whole history of nations and a continent…or at least trying to…while turning the people of those lands into a commodity.

Plug-in cars are the future. The grid isn’t ready, yet.

By 2035, the chief automakers will have turned away from the internal combustion engine. It’ll be up to the grid to fuel all those new cars, trucks and buses.

Converting the nation’s fleet of automobiles and trucks to electric power is a critical piece of the battle against climate change. The Biden administration wants to see them account for half of all sales by 2030, and New York state has enacted a ban on the sale of internal combustion cars and trucks starting in 2035.

But making America’s cars go electric is no longer primarily a story about building the cars. Against this ambitious backdrop, America’s electric grid will be sorely challenged by the need to deliver clean power to those cars. Today, though, it barely functions in times of ordinary stress, and fails altogether too often for comfort, as widespread blackouts in California, Texas, Louisiana and elsewhere have shown.

By 2030, according to one study, the nation will need to invest as much as $125 billion in the grid to allow it to handle electric vehicles. The current infrastructure bill before Congress puts about $5 billion toward transmission line construction and upgrades.

Sorry, Will. My immediate reaction to your article – necessary as it is to light a fire under the butts of what passes for politicians in the GOUSA – are three rather commonplace aspects of what you fear that aren’t especially scary after all.

First, $125 billion over 9 years or so averages out to less than $14 billion/year. Less than production costs of several F-35s. Not counting cost of flying and maintaining our military pets.

Second, the cost per mile traveled by this conversion from infernal combustion to electric vehicles looks to be continuing to decline over this period – counter to the existing tab for fuel-burners. A cost divided between private and public bill payers.

Third, is my favorite because hardly anyone recognizes that, in practice, most folks will be trickle-charging overnight for next-day use. The lowest possible increase in grid-load. Especially compared to past crashes worrying the author. Most all resulting from millions of folks turning on the least efficient use of electricity there could be. Running air conditioners.

OECD reaches landmark deal on a global corporate tax rate

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development on Friday announced a major breakthrough on corporate tax rates, after years of disagreement.

The group of developed nations agreed to a global minimum corporate tax rate of 15%. This marks a huge shift for smaller economies, such as the Republic of Ireland, which have attracted international firms — to a large extent — via a lower tax rate…

“The landmark deal, agreed by 136 countries and jurisdictions representing more than 90% of global GDP, will also reallocate more than USD 125 billion of profits from around 100 of the world’s largest and most profitable MultiNational Enterprises to countries worldwide, ensuring that these firms pay a fair share of tax wherever they operate and generate profits,” the OECD said in a statement Friday…

The breakthrough comes after some changes were made to the original text, notably that the rate of 15% will not be increased at a later date, and that small businesses will not be hit with the new rates…

Countries now have to work out some outstanding details so the new deal is ready to kick in during 2023.

Most of the hard work for most of the countries ready to sign on to this extraordinary deal is done and dusted. Part of getting to this announcement included the tweaks needed to bring on the broadest coalition possible. The agreement is between experienced international negotiators with a strong voice in enabling the process in their home countries.

We’re going to have a unique problem here in the GOUSA. Changes in tax relationships with other nations can only become reality via treaty law in the United States. Anyone ready to hazard a guess on whether you think the United States can sort out an international treaty of this scope in the next two years?

Walmart Navy sails around traffic jams

Before Covid, it was rare to see more than one ship lined up at America’s biggest port complex, the Los Angeles and Long Beach terminal. As of today, there are over 60 of them, filled with billions worth of toys, furniture, and home electronics. The traffic’s almost as nightmarish as the I-405.

Now, the nautical logjam has gotten so bad that big box retailers are chartering their own ships to get around the lines in time for the holiday shopping season…

Incoming cargo at the Port of Los Angeles — which sees half of all U.S. imports — is up 30% from record levels set last year. Cue the long line of boats stacked with so much stuff that trucks and trains can’t move the goods out fast enough to make a dent in the bottleneck. Now big retailers are taking matters into their own hands:

Walmart has chartered a grain cargo ship, stuffed it full of toys and consumer goods, and sent it away from the LA Port to a nearby cargo dock, Reuters reported Thursday. Home Depot sent its own vessel loaded with Halloween and Christmas decorations to San Diego. Target, Costco, Ikea, and Dollar Tree are also getting on board the boat-chartering trend.

Traffic managers get paid to come up with solutions for problems like this. Which – BTW – are considered “good problems”. Lots better than sitting around like Congress wondering what can we do to justify our paychecks?

Baseless Claims About Cause of Cargo Ship Backups


Container ships anchored by ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles waiting to offload. Mario Tama/Getty

U.S. ports slowed by pandemic-induced labor and equipment shortages cannot keep up with Americans’ demand for imported goods, resulting in cargo ship backups on both coasts. But social media posts, without citing evidence, falsely claim the Biden administration is purposely “orchestrating” product shortages.

First, this is a global phenomenon. The reasons are the same, worldwide. Delays at a number of choke points, globally, have a consistent result. One that will take weeks and months to resolve.

Cargo ships are backed up in record numbers at U.S. ports, as Americans’ demand for imported goods runs up against the ability of shippers and transporters to unload those goods and transport them to warehouses and consumers.

But some social media posts claim, without citing evidence, that the Biden administration is keeping the ships backed up on purpose. They misleadingly imply the cargo backup is part of a plan to create shortages and later inflate fourth-quarter data to take credit for a strengthening economy…

In fact, cargo traffic has been rising since the pandemic took hold, as homebound Americans began ordering goods online, with a record number of ships waiting to enter ports at Los Angeles and Long Beach. Marine terminals and trucking companies have been unable to keep up with the volume, resulting in bottlenecks at ports and rail yards from California to New York.

RightWing nutballs are consistent in their communications practices. Once they decide on a new lie appropriate to whichever economic question they hope to exacerbate to their political advantage, they set to work with narrow focus and no verifiable facts or analysis. Rather like Trump’s campaign promises. If you are a True Believer of this kind of crap, you never worry about facts, anyway.

Not only are these logistics problems spreading globally, reaching epic numbers at gateway ports. the answers are the same around the world. Time, increasing competent personal (which usually requires increasing wages)…repeated over and again throughout the supply chains from point of manufacture to retail distribution.

It’s what I did for many years…when I wasn’t involved in sales. Though I’ve been retired for a couple decades, I’m getting job offers every day. A compliment, yes. But, retirement is good enough, thank you.